War of the Worlds — the review is up!

War of the Worlds — the review is up! June 29, 2005

My review of War of the Worlds is now up at CT Movies.

In truth, I’m still figuring out what I make of this film — it’s such a visceral experience — and this was definitely one of those times when I wished I had more than a few hours of writing time between the end of the screening and my copy deadline.

JUNE 30 UPDATE: A few other thoughts have occurred to me since I wrote the review, and I figure I’ll just spill ’em here.

There have been some complaints about the ending of the film, which is considered too positive, too upbeat, too facile, for the kind of serious and grim and gritty film that the rest of the movie is trying to be. I have to say I don’t mind that so much, for two reasons: (1) the Book of Job, and (2) Schindler’s List.

The Book of Job first. The final verses of Job end the story on a somewhat superficially happy note that doesn’t really resolve any of the issues raised during the previous 40+ chapters, nor are they meant to; similarly, I think the point of Spielberg’s film is to be found in the raw, visceral experience of terror and suffering that occupies the bulk of the film, and the ending is just there to make sure that we don’t leave the theatre completely depressed.

As for Schindler’s List, I have only seen the film once, when it first came out 12 years ago, but I remember noticing during the film that most of the major characters managed to stay alive, and thinking that none of the characters we really cared about would die; the movie was, after all, based on the preserved memories of survivors, and not on the lost memories of those who perished. It seems Stanley Kubrick had a similar take on the film; according to this site‘s review of A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001; my BCCN review; my CT review; my Vancouver Sun article), screenwriter Frederic Rapahel and Kubrick had the following exchange:

Kubrick: Think that was about the Holocaust?
Raphael: Wasn’t it? What else was it about?
Kubrick: That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List was about six hundred people who don’t.

Similarly, as I was watching War of the Worlds, I figured all along that, while the film was in some way about catastrophe and destruction and oppression, our protagonists would be among those lucky few who survive; and of course, there is a precedent for this in the book, which ends with the sentence: “And strangest of all is it to hold my wife’s hand again, and to think that I have counted her, and that she has counted me, among the dead.”

BTW, thanks to Jeffrey Overstreet for referring me to this site and its defense of the problematic third acts in most of Spielberg’s recent films. I think I agree with it more often than not.

The sphincter scene was an uncomfortable reminder of Ivan Reitman’s Evolution (2001; my review), and its rah-rah heroics don’t quite fit in this otherwise grimly realistic film, but the heroics seem more accidental — or, better, spontaneous — than intentional, and I find myself thinking about what the scene has to say about the nature of leadership and initiative, especially in light of the rather bleak and almost zombie-ish mob scenes earlier on.

Speaking of which, it is amazing to me that this film could have a PG-13 rating — which is purely advisory and does not prevent children from buying tickets if they want to — just like the last Star Wars movie and countless other, lighter films. Perhaps this is simply because War of the Worlds doesn’t have any nudity or very strong language? FWIW, this film was given the 14-A rating — which is enforced — in British Columbia and in Ontario, whereas Revenge of the Sith had mere PG ratings in both provinces.

Some critics have spoken as though this film were breaking new ground by showing that it’s okay to make disaster movies after September 11 again; but actually, there have been a couple others already. The Core (2003) flopped; on the other hand, The Day after Tomorrow (2004; my review) was a hit; and one thing that sets War of the Worlds apart from those films, I think, is that it doesn’t really have any of those typical fetishistic money shots in which famous landmarks are destroyed. This restraint may make the film more serious, so to speak, than those other films.

Finally, last night I cracked open my copy of Simon Callow’s Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu, and read the ten or so pages he devotes to the 1938 radio broadcast and its fallout — which was interesting, considering I only listened to it for the first time a few days ago. (Incidentally, the radio play was broadcast over CBS, which presumably explains why the TV crew Tom Cruise’s character meets in the film is also from CBS.) Fascinating stuff. The bit at the end where Orson says the broadcast was just a Halloween prank — though technically, the broadcast was on October 30, not 31 — was apparently improvised on the spot because word had reached the control booth that people had started panicking across the country about 12 minutes into the show. It’s interesting to think that that archived recording began as a fully scripted radio play, and then morphed a little over the course of that one hour, adapting in its own way to the response of the audience. Now that’s an effect you can never really have with film!

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